(One in a series during the Year of Consecrated Life)
Sister Elise Betz loves the Franciscan atmosphere that permeates family medicine wing at hospital
WILMINGTON — Early in her ministry as an elementary school teacher, Sister Elise Betz – then called Sister Madonna – would respond to her mother superior’s question about what she wanted to do. The response was always the same: “I want to be a nurse.”
The superior’s response was to see what God wanted Sister Elise to do, and each fall, she was back in a classroom. Sister Elise had decided to attend Rutgers University for hospital administration, but a new superior told her if she wanted to be a nurse, “then go be a nurse.”
That spurred a career that over the decades has taken Sister Elise, a Sister of St. Francis of Philadelphia, to several different states and the Dominican Republic. She now works in the Tiny Steps program at St. Francis Hospital, serving women while they are pregnant and after the children are born until their first birthday. She does the intake for new patients who are coming to St. Francis’ family practice, which includes 18 resident and four attending physicians.
The patients and doctors are all from different backgrounds, cultures and religions. This is part of what Sister Elise enjoys about her work.
“What I like especially about this is that I get to interact with all these different countries. Many of them are different religions. You see the goodness in each religion, each person,” she said.
Sister Elise stresses the importance of having a staff that not only reflects various cultures but can interact with them.
“That’s huge right now, huge, because the church – you hear Pope Francis saying this all the time – we’ve got to get out of the pews and into the streets because that’s where the people are,” she said. “The faster we get out there, the faster we realize what the needs are.”
The Sisters of St. Francis have long been a fixture in the Diocese of Wilmington. In addition to the hospital, they have ministered at many schools, parishes and elsewhere. Their commitment to Wilmington remains strong, said Franciscan Sister Ann David Strohminger, the diocesan delegate for religious.
“The sisters love being here, the ones who are here,” Sister Ann David said. “There’s a strong affiliation with Wilmington.
Currently, 36 Franciscan sisters minister in the diocese, from Sister Mary Beth Antonelli, a chaplain at St. Francis Hospital, to Sister Rose Vattilana, a volunteer at Christiana Hospital. Many are in Catholic institutions, but the sisters also work in prisons, counseling centers and eldercare. Several are volunteers.
“The focus isn’t so much on the institutions that we built up. It’s more on the charism. So working with the poor and the marginalized, the care of creation, that’s more of our charism,” Sister Ann David said.
Sister Elise worked for a few years after graduating from West Philadelphia Catholic High School for Girls in Philadelphia before joining the Franciscans in 1961. Franciscan sisters taught her in high school, and she had an aunt who was a member of the congregation.
This is not the her first stop in the Diocese of Wilmington, or even at St. Francis Hospital. Her first assignment in Delaware was also at St. Francis from 1988-90, teaching nurses in the OB/GYN department. She then worked in Florida and Alabama before returning to the diocese in 1997, when she went to the Center of Hope in Newark as the nurse manager. She returned to St. Francis in 2008. Her assignments have taken her exactly where she wanted to be.
“I want to be with the poor, and I wanted to be in places where other people didn’t want to go. That’s how I ended up in Florida,” she said, although she pointed out that St. Francis has plenty of patients who are not poor.
Working with pregnant women and their babies appeals to her. “You can make a big difference in people’s lives if you get them in prenatal care because never are they as motivated as when they are going to be parents. It brings out all the positives in parents, and if you can channel that, where they see one another in a different way – the strengths they see in one another and the support they give one another – and then that is focused on that child, that’s what we’re about.”
Sister Elise does not advertise that she is a Franciscan or a woman religious, but she said the patients seem to know which women are sisters.
“I don’t know what we do, but they know we’re sisters. To me … you’re bringing them to God. You don’t care how they get there. You want to show them God’s love,” she said.
“What you’re trying to be is God’s presence to people. And the poorer they are and the more God-forsaken they are, the easier I can do that.”
Nursing is not her only passion. Like St. Francis of Assisi, she has a soft spot in her heart for dogs, particularly those who are being trained to be service or companion animals. She and the sister she lives with often has these canines at her house in Wilmington as part of their journey with Canine Partners for Life of Cochranville, Pa.
“It’s another ministry, honestly. This is a Franciscan thing. I believe all creation is good. We don’t appreciate one another, and we don’t appreciate other creatures. I’ve always wanted to do something with animals,” Sister Elise said.
The dogs bond with the people they help, which matches up with the Franciscan concept of “haecceitas,” or “thisness.”
“We are brothers and sisters with all of God’s creatures,” she said.
The Franciscans have become involved in all sorts of ministries, in the spirit of Vatican II. Sister Elise had been discouraged over the years as the church seemed to her to be drifting away from the council’s direction but likes the tone that has been set by Pope Francis.
“We’ve done all kinds of things,” she said. “Vatican II for us was absolutely wonderful. And having Pope Francis in right now is absolutely wonderful for us because it seems like Vatican II is having a resurgence with his coming in. We’ve been on that track the whole time.”
• • •
Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia
- The congregation was founded in 1855 by a Philadelphia widow.
- Its first hospital, St. Mary’s, opened in 1860 in Philadelphia.
- While Mother Agnes Bucher was superior general, the order grew from nine sisters to 800 serving in 19 dioceses.
- Today, there are approximately 450 professed sisters.
- 36 sisters minister in the diocese
- They live by their foundress’ motto, “No risk … no gain.”
- Follow the sisters on Twitter, @SrsofStFrancis.